TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

28 June 2016

Seeker-sensitivity: Being all things to all people.

And why certain Christians confuse kindness with compromise.

Seeker /'sik.ər/ n. One who’s attempting to find religion: God, truth, peace, or self-justification.
Seeker-sensitive /'sik.ər 'sɛn.sə.dɪv/ adj. Caring about seekers’ feelings, hangups, offenses, needs, or lack of familiarity; adapting one’s message in consideration.
2. Compromising one’s message to make it more appealing.
[Seeker-sensitivity /'sik.ər sɛn.sə'dɪv.ə.di/ n.]

People are more apt to listen to you if you’re like them.

Yeah, I know there are exceptions to this rule. When I’ve been on missionary trips, the locals are kinda curious about the novelty of American foreigners, so they’ll listen to me for a bit. But only for a bit. One of the things American missionaries discovered in the 20th century (and it’s a little dumbfounding it took us so long to discover it, but it’s probably ’cause of racism) is that our missions either grow really slow, or don’t grow at all, when we don’t put the locals in charge. The fastest-growing churches and denominations are run by natives, not foreigners.

St. Paul understood this, and when he went round the Roman Empire founding churches, he recognized the importance of adjusting himself to whatever culture he worked in. Still obeying God, of course; yet living within the cultural expectations of the people he preached to. He didn’t want his obvious differences to get in the way of the gospel.

1 Corinthians 9.19-23 KWL
19 Having freedom in everything, I enslave myself. Because I could get many!
20 I become, to the Judeans, like a Judean. Because I could get Judeans!
I become, to Law-followers, like a Law-follower. Because I could get Law-followers!
21 I become, to Law-breakers, like a Law-breaker—
Not breaking God’s Law, but following Christ’s Law. Because I could get Law-breakers!
22 I become, to the weak, weak. Because I could get the weak!
I become, to whomever, whatever. Because however I could save some of them, I will.
23 I’ll do anything for the gospel, so I can be a part of it.

One of the other things American missionaries discovered in the 20th century… is that the United States is also a foreign culture. No, this isn’t still because of racism: If you grew up in popular Christian culture, you’ve got a mindset which pagans aren’t all that familiar with, don’t understand… and sometimes find wholly offensive.

Ever tried to take your pagan friends to church—only for that to be the week your pastor unexpectedly goes off on a rant about just the issues that’d totally alienate your pagan friends? Might be politics, might be social issues, might even be baseball teams. Whatever it takes for the pagans to have the knee-jerk response, “I’m never coming back here.”

Man alive, have I been there. Took months to coax ’em into the building; took all of three minutes to convince ’em they’d like hell much better.

So this is what seeker-sensitivity is about: Trying not to push people’s buttons. Trying not to alienate potential Christians. Trying to share the gospel, not our agendas. Trying to be kind to newcomers.

Thing is, look up “seeker-sensitive” on the internet, and just about all you’ll find are people who are totally against the practice. Why?

Seeker-insensitivity.

Bluntly, most of the people who fight seeker-sensitivity are jerks. They’re not kind; they feel the gospel has to be presented in terms of “my way God’s way or the highway,” and any lessening of its “righteousness” is compromise. They have that freedom in everything Paul wrote about, 1Co 9.19 so they wanna revel in it, bash every sin which offends them, and call that the gospel. It’s really not.

The rest have fallen for the jerks’ worry: They’re afraid when we adapt the gospel to fit other environments, we might change the gospel. Then it’d no longer be the gospel; it’d be heresy. We wouldn’t have culturally-appropriate Christians; we’d have compromise-riddled heretics.

I understand the concern. But for the most part it’s totally invalid.

It’s because a lot of Christians don’t recognize there’s a vast difference between popular Christian culture, and God’s kingdom; there’s a wide difference between every Christian topic, and the gospel. One’s narrower than the other. The gospel is the good news that God’s kingdom has come near. Mk 1.15 It’s that God wants a relationship with us, wants to be our Father, and made it possible through Christ Jesus. It’s not our worship, our religious practices, our ministries and good deeds—you know, the stuff we do to further that relationship. All those things are adaptable. And it’s definitely not our music, books, politics, and decorum.

For Christianists, those people who pursue popular Christian culture but not Christ so much, the culture is the gospel. The culture is God’s kingdom; not our pathetic human substitute for the real thing. Compromise the culture, and you’ve compromised the gospel. That’s why they’re willing to divide whole churches because they object to stupid little things like music and bible translations and the color they painted the Fellowship Hall.

I’ve heard a number of ’em claim not only should we not make cultural adaptations in order to reach pagans: We should double down. We should get even more traditional and hardcore and old-timey. ’Cause pagans don’t respect a watered-down “gospel”: They want all the old-fashioned trappings. They’re rejecting their culture to embrace Jesus; they don’t want him new and modern and relevant, but ancient and medieval and… well, not irrelevant, but if you’ve abandoned today’s secular culture, you don’t really need him to speak to it, do you?

One Catholic pundit in particular claims this is the reason more people are turning Catholic: They want those old traditions. Thing is, if you look at the numbers of people who’re becoming Catholic, a lot of ’em are Protestants switching churches, not pagans becoming Christian. And if you know any Catholic missionaries, you’ll know they already are seeker-sensitive. They’re not trying to seek and save the found.

Neither should we be.

Step 1: Drop the Christianese.

If you’re gonna share Jesus with pagans, the first thing you gotta do is drop any vocabulary words they don’t understand. Stop trying to sound like a Christian, and start trying to sound like them.

No, you don’t have to use their profanities. And don’t use slang; you’ll sound ridiculous—’cause they sound ridiculous, but they’re clueless. You just have to drop all the Christianese, the terms we Christians casually fling around which aren’t familiar to newbies or pagans. (In fact I’ve found a lot of Christians aren’t sure what they mean either. They’ve been guessing all this time.) The unfamiliar terms get in the way. So learn familiar ones.

Yeah, to Christianists this is heresy. I’ve heard ’em lose their tiny minds over the fact one particular megachurch doesn’t use the words cross or sin or surrender or repent on their website. After all, aren’t these concepts central to salvation? Humans are sinners; Jesus defeated sin? Sin had better damn well be on a real Christian’s website. Otherwise there’s no gospel in that church.

But sin is a Christianese word. Seriously. Pagans don’t use that word. They know what wrongdoing is; they know God forbids certain things; they definitely know they forbid certain things. But ask your average pagan, and they’ll think sin means “evil,” not “a violation of God’s command.” Your average evangelist doesn’t bother to define it; they just assume everyone already knows what sin is. So when they fling the word around, pagans misinterpret it: To them, “All have sinned” means “All are evil,” and they can’t believe that. And that’s not what we’re trying to teach anyway. (Well, I’m not. I don’t know about certain dark evangelists.)

You see the problem. So the responsible thing to do, believe it or not, is to not use the Christianese word sin. Instead:

  • God told humanity what he expects of us.
  • People either don’t know his expectations—or in extreme cases deliberately violate them, just to show him their contempt.
  • God offers to forgive us everything, and help us reform ourselves.
  • God wants to create a kingdom of such followers, and live in love and harmony with us forever.

Didn’t use sin in any of that gospel presentation. Didn’t need to. And yet some Christians will insist I just taught heresy, because I didn’t use their favorite word.

One of my theology professors rightly pointed out: If you can’t teach a Christian concept without Christianese, maybe you don’t fully understand it yourself. I’ve especially found this to be true when I teach about Jesus and drop the Christianese: I know what I mean, but fellow Christians think I’m getting it wrong. Sometimes ’cause they’ve been using the Christianese words wrong all this time, and sometimes because they insist on using the words: Without Christian words, to them it’s not Christianity.

Then drop the proof texts.

And if they can’t handle dropping Christianese, they especially get outraged when I tell ’em to drop the proof texts.

Most evangelists, when they preach Jesus, quote the scriptures like crazy. As we should. But for some reason they tack on the bible reference to every single quote.

“For all have sinned—Romans 3.23—and the wages of sin is death—Romans 6.23—but Christ has taken our sins and nailed them to the cross—Colossians 2.14—and so we’ve died to sin—Romans 6.10.”

Yeah, that’s some good proof-texting. Now, are any of the pagans you’re preaching at, gonna get out their bibles and look up any of those references? Are they gonna remember those references? Do they even have a bible?

See, pagans don’t care about the bible. Haven’t learned to care about it. To them, it’s a book. “The Good Book,” but still a book. They might own a copy, but they don’t know where it is, any more than I know where my copy of The Book of Mormon is. They already assume all the stuff we’re preaching comes out of the bible—even though sometimes it doesn’t. I once heard some pagan on a radio show express great surprise that the apostles aren’t called “St. Paul,” “St. John,” or “St. James” in the bible. Clearly he never read it, and that’s to be expected.

But for the most part, pagans don’t want to hear us quote a book. Even The Good Book. They wanna know what we’ve experienced. What’s Jesus done for you lately? And what might he do for me?

See, to us Christians, the scriptures might be living and active, He 4.12 but pagans haven’t experienced this power firsthand. To them, the bible’s just another ancient book written by dead brown guys, translated into old-timey English by dead white guys, over-quoted by overbearing old farts. We Christians respect the bible; they don’t. Before this attitude changes, they gotta meet Jesus.

Again, critics are horrified by this idea. Proclaiming the gospel without bible references? It can’t be done. It shouldn’t be done. It can’t be anything but heresy.

Yet evangelism without the bible references is precisely what we see in the bible. Chapter and verse numbers weren’t invented yet, so when they quoted bible, the most they could tell you was “In the prophets” or “According to Isaiah” or “It is written”—and a lot of times they didn’t bother and just started quoting. For that matter, in Acts, the apostles had to share Jesus without a New Testament—they were still writing it!—and couldn’t quote the gospels, nor their fellow apostles’ letters, nor Jesus’s revelation to John.

Even then, quoting the Old Testament only worked on fellow Jews. Gentiles weren’t familiar with it, didn’t respect it (like our present day), and Paul had to resort to quoting Greek poets. Ac 17.28 I’m not kidding. He quoted pagans. It’s as if I tried to share Jesus by quoting Mohandas Gandhi. Which I have in fact done.

Yes, I also quote bible. Lots of bible. Directly and indirectly. I’d better be consistent with the scriptures. But I don’t throw in the addresses. To a pagan, a scripture address means, “I’m quoting an old book; I have no personal experience with this,” and so forth. And they’re not gonna look it up.

To Christianists, the bible is part of the gospel. The very first thing I should be teaching these pagans is to respect the bible as God’s word. ’Cause it’s our foundation for everything we believe about Jesus. If I don’t make that crystal clear to them, it’s like I’ve denied the scriptures.

Okay, first of all our foundation for what we believe about Jesus, is Jesus. 1Co 3.11 The scriptures speak about him, Jn 5.39 but if he’s not valid, the scriptures aren’t valid. Pagans understand this. Christians, particularly those who inadvertently worship their bibles, forget it, and need to be reminded of it.

So our priority isn’t bible, but Jesus. We need pagans to meet Jesus, get to know Jesus, get to follow Jesus—and then they’ll wanna crack those bibles and learn as much as they can from them. Too many people already love their bibles but don’t love Jesus. Turns ’em rotten. Let’s not make more of them.

Don’t drop Jesus!

Thus far I’ve discussed false compromise. Now let’s deal with the real thing.

Every so often I’ll meet spineless Christians who can’t share Jesus without caving in. Sometimes they know this, which is why they never bother to share Jesus. Other times they plow right ahead… but preach a gospel with all the uncomfortable bits edited out. “Come to Jesus and he’ll solve all your problems,” is usually the form this takes. They never warn people that Christianity presents its own set of problems, like fighting our selfishness, struggling with righteousness, dealing with doubt, pushback from antichrists, and evading the devil’s booby-traps. Christianity isn’t easy; it’s hard. But it’s true.

Those who preach Christianity is so easy: Too often they’re avoiding the hard parts themselves. They don’t fight their selfishness, nor struggle with righteousness. They practice cheap grace. That’s their version of the gospel: God forgives all, so believe in him and you won’t have to go to hell. And won’t have to change anything else. Just your beliefs. Which is easy; you can psyche yourself into believing anything you want.

Of course, presented with one of the not-so-easy concepts, some of these folks fold like a defective lawn chair. “You don’t really believe God throws people into hell, do you?” makes ’em sputter, “Uh… yes? But even so, he’s really really nice.” And they try to make hell sound not all that nasty; that it’ll be cold and dark instead of hot and stinky; that very, very few people will go there; that people in hell will be burnt up instead of suffering forever (which, to be fair, is debatable); or that hell is temporary, and after a bit God’ll let everybody into heaven. However they weasel away from the idea, it’s because the peer pressure got to them, and they don’t want God to appear unfriendly, unfair, intolerant, unpopular, or punitive.

Most of the time it’s the individual Christian who lacks a spine. But I’ve run into churches who lack one too: They don’t like the idea of hell. (Hey, I don’t blame ’em; anyone who loves the idea of hell is seriously twisted.) But while there’s nothing wrong with de-emphasizing it, ’cause it’s not a central idea of the gospel, they don’t just de-emphasize it. They deny it. They claim it’s not there, or not so bad. They also wind up ignoring Jesus’s every warning to stay away from it.

There are Christians who are more liberal than the scriptures, and Christians who are more conservative. I’ve met all sorts. They teach the beliefs they like, instead of the gospel of Christ Jesus.

Technically none of this is seeker-sensitivity. True seeker-sensitivity is about being kind to the seeker: If a truth makes ’em uncomfortable, tell it as kindly as we can. But tell it. Tactfully. Carefully. Lovingly. Graciously.

Fake seeker-sensitivity isn’t about kindness. It’s about avoiding our own discomfort. It’s about sucking up to the seeker, telling ’em whatever they want to hear, doing whatever it takes to turn ’em to Jesus. Of course, if we’ve not presented him accurately, are they really turning to Jesus?

The Jesus of spineless Christians is a spineless Jesus. One who’d never have defeated sin and death; he’d have worshiped the devil Lk 4.5-8 and spared himself a crucifixion. Not that the Jesus of graceless Christians is any better: Full of wrath, absent of love.

So as you can tell, I advocate for true seeker-sensitivity. We need to present Jesus like Paul did: Whatever facilitates sharing the true Jesus with others, let’s do. Whatever makes people balk, or run away, let’s handle carefully. And everything else—the cultural differences, our individual practices, our church’s favorite emphases, the popular buzzwords, the junk—let’s set aside. That’s not the gospel. First things first.